Guidelines for Hiring / Transitioning to a New Chief Executive in Nonprofit or For-Profit Corporations

Sections of this topic

    © Copyright Carter
    McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC

    Vast majority of content
    in this topic applies to for-profits and nonprofits. This book also covers this topic.

    Developing, Operating and Restoring Your Nonprofit Board - Book Cover

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Current Chief Executive’s Notification to Board (if
    the current CEO is leaving)

    Need for Confidentiality in Hiring a New Chief Executive
    Board Preparation for Hiring a New Chief Executive
    Administrative Preparation for Hiring a New Chief

    Interim Coordination Between Board and Staff
    Hiring the New Chief Executive
    Orienting the New Chief Executive
    Additional Perspectives on Hiring
    or Transitioning to a New Chief Executive

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    Related Library Topics
    How to Do Succession

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    This procedure can be used to guide an organization through the
    hiring or transition to a new chief executive. The procedure addresses
    most of the major considerations during the transition, but there
    will certainly be unique items that will come. The procedure should
    be carefully reviewed by the relevant board members and current
    chief executive (if one exists) to ensure it is complete for their
    needs. (Note that this list is very useful as a risk management
    mechanism, e.g., for contingency planning, for review by an organization
    even if the chief executive is not leaving.) If the current chief
    executive is being fired, this procedure should be modified accordingly.
    This document contains the following sections.

    Current Chief Executive’s Notification to Board (in
    the case that the current CEO is leaving)

    Board Preparation
    Administrative Preparation
    Interim Coordination Between Board and Staff
    Hiring the New Chief Executive
    Orienting the New Chief Executive

    Current Chief Executive’s Notification to Board (if the current CEO is

    1. Typically, the chief
    The executive will notify the board chair or other board members.

    The chair should immediately notify the rest
    of the board members in the next board meeting.
    2. Attempt to negotiate a four-week notice period from the
    chief executive.
    It’s not unlikely that there will be
    a period without a new chief executive. This procedure will help
    guide you through that period.

    Need for Confidentiality in Hiring a New Chief Executive

    1. The board members should be apprised as soon
    as possible.
    members believe that transitions should be handled so cautiously
    that even some board members should not hear about the transition.
    This is the wrong approach. Each board member is legally responsible
    for the leadership of the organization, and deserves to know about
    all matters when they occur.
    2. Discuss how to handle public relations. The community
    will soon hear the chief executive is leaving. Agree on how this
    message will be conveyed to the community. If the transition is
    expected to take over a month (they often do), consider sending
    a letter to the major stakeholders (funders (nonprofit only),
    advisors, suppliers, “peer” organizations, etc.) notifying
    them of the transition and assuring them that transition planning
    is being carried out thoroughly. Ask them to contact the board
    chair if they have any concerns or questions.
    3. Note that applicants to the chief executive role deserve
    complete confidentiality.
    Make every effort not to expose
    applicants’ names to the public or staff. If certain staff are
    selected to interview the candidates, they should be coached to
    not reveal candidate names to the rest of the staff. This confidentiality
    is not a matter of secrecy to be manipulated, rather it is a matter
    of protecting candidates who may not want their names out in public
    as looking for a new job. Of course, this matter of confidentiality
    is ultimately up to the board, but if confidentiality is not assured,
    it is very likely that the number of candidates will be quite

    Board Preparation for Hiring a New Chief Executive

    1. Appoint an ad hoc
    transition board committee to focus on this transition –

    This committee will manage the transition and make recommendations
    to the entire board regarding any matters with the transition.
    This committee role could be assumed by the current Executive
    Committee or a Personnel Committee. Committee members should commit
    to availability over the next four to eight weeks.
    2. This transition planning procedure should promptly be
    reviewed and updated
    to constitute the transition planning
    3. As soon as the transition plan is complete, the staff should
    promptly be notified of the transition.
    A board member
    should attend the staff meeting where notification is given and
    the staff should be assured that the transition is being planned
    and carried out. The plan might be reviewed in the staff meeting.
    A copy of the transition plan should be shared with all staff
    4. Identify funding for the transition (nonprofit
    For example, are any funds needed for a national
    search, to move the new candidate, for training the new candidate,
    will any consultants be needed, etc.?
    5. Update the chief executive job description. The
    description will be referenced to write the ad for the position,
    during interviewing and for ongoing guidance to the new chief executive,
    and to ensure adequate compensation. When updating the job description,
    consider current overall responsibilities, strategic planning
    goals for the year, and the nature of current major issues that
    need to be addressed. Identify the most important criteria for
    selecting the new person and then rank the criteria (this ranking
    comes in handy when comparing candidates). The board should update
    the job description among themselves. The current chief executive
    should update the description at the same time, but independently.
    The board and chief executive should share their comments to the
    job description and discuss differences to come to a consensus.
    Write a final version of the job description.
    6. Get ads out as soon as possible. The board should
    decide if they are going to do a local and/or national search.

    7. Hiring the new chief executive. (See the section,
    “Hiring to Fill the New Role” later on in this document.)

    Administrative Preparation for Hiring a New Chief Executive

    1. Establish an interim
    staff structure.
    Consider appointing an acting chief executive
    from among the top reports to the current chief executive. If
    this course is followed, ensure the job description is well understood
    by the acting chief executive and the acting arrangement is documented
    in a letter between the acting chief executive and the board.
    Send a memo throughout the staff, indicating this interim appointment
    and how the acting chief executive will work with the staff until
    a permanent chief executive is identified. (Be very careful with
    this type of temporary arrangement as it can set lull board members
    into believing the transition is complete, which it is not.)
    2. Update the administrative calendar for the organization.
    Ask the chief executive to make a schedule of all major recurring
    activities during the year (e.g., performance reviews, special
    events, staff meetings, one-on-one meetings, lease/contract expiration
    dates, when paychecks come out, etc.)
    3. Get a list of key stakeholders. Have the chief
    executive make a list of all community key stakeholders whom the
    the new chief executive should know about, e.g., funders (nonprofit
    , advisors (legal, accounting, real estate), “peer”
    organizations, etc.
    4. Review the chief executive’s office facilities. Ask
    the chief executive to document the status of his/her office,
    e.g., ensure there are labels on all documents and drawers. Appropriate
    staff and at least two board members should meet with the chief
    executive to review where he/she keeps their files and major documents.
    Staff should retain a key to the office and the appropriate board
    members should retain keys to the desk drawers and file cabinets.

    5. Review personnel status. Two or more board members
    should meet with the chief executive to review personnel files,
    e.g., are there any current personnel issues or pending major
    actions? If so, it may be best to wait until the transition to
    the new chief executive if this is expected to occur during the
    next month or so.
    6. The current chief executive should complete the performance
    reviews on all personnel before he/she leaves.
    This ensures
    that the chief executive’s important feedback to personnel is
    collected before he/she goes, gives personnel a fair opportunity
    to reflect their past performance to the new chief executive,
    and gives the new chief executive the input he/she deserves about
    each employee to ensure effective supervision.

    Coordination Between Board and Staff

    1. Emergency contacts for
    the staff.
    Staff should be given names and phone numbers
    of at least two board members who can be contacted if needed.
    These two members should brief the entire board on the nature
    of any emergency calls from staff, if calls were made.
    2. Board and staff meetings. Depending on the size
    of the organization, have weekly meetings of full staff (if small)
    or all managers (if large) during the transition until a new chief
    the executive is hired. Have a board member attend the meetings. Have
    a staff member (acting chief executive, or the current top reports,
    or rotate among top reports) attend portions of the board meetings.

    3. Coming up to speed on the chief executive’s current activities
    in the organization.
    Have the current chief executive
    ask all staff members to update a “todo” list of their
    current major activities over the past month, planned activities
    over the coming two months and any major issues they’re having
    now. These todo lists will serve to coordinate work details during
    the transition and help update the new chief executive come up
    to speed.
    4. Authorization lists. Decide who will issue paychecks
    and sign off on them during the transition. Often, the board treasurer
    and/or secretary will conduct this sign-off role.
    5. A board member should meet with the current chief executive
    once a week before he/she goes.
    Review the status of work
    activities, any current issues, etc.

    Hiring the New Chief Executive

    1. Advertise the position
    – Post ads in classified sections of local major newspapers. In
    the ads, include the job title, general responsibilities, minimum
    skills and/or education required, whom they should send a resume
    to if they are interested, and by when. Mention the role to customers.
    Send cover letters and job descriptions to professional organizations.
    Be sure to mention the role to all staff to see if they have any
    favorite candidates. Consider using a professional recruiting
    2. Note that current employees should be able to apply for
    the job.
    Considerations in hiring them for the new role
    will have to include the impact on the organization if the employee
    leaves behind a critical and unfilled role in the organization.

    3. Screen resumes – Often, a board committee will
    screen the first round of candidates, including a review of resumes
    and first-round interviews. When screening resumes, note the candidate’s
    career objective — or the lack of it. If not specified, the candidate
    may not have considered what they want to do in the future, which
    may impact their commitment to your new role. Note if they stayed
    at jobs long or did they leave quickly. Are there holes in their
    work history? Note their education and training. Is it appropriate
    for the new role? Consider what capabilities and skills are evidenced
    in their past and current work activities. Interview all candidates
    that meet the minimum qualifications. (At this point, be sure
    that you’re not excluding candidates because of unfair biases.)

    4. Interview candidates – Send the job description
    to candidates before they come to the interview meeting. While
    interviewing candidates, always apply the same questions to all
    candidates to ensure fairness. All questions should be in regard
    to performing the duties of the job. Ask about their compensation
    needs and expected or needed benefits. Attempt to ask open-ended
    questions, i.e., avoid “yes-no” questions. Talk for
    at most 25% of the time — the rest of the time, listen. Don’t
    rely on your memory — ask permission from the interviewee to
    take notes. Find out when they can start if offered the job. Consider
    having multiple people at the interview; although this can be
    intimidating to the interviewee, this practice can ensure
    a much more objective and fair presentation. (If staff participate
    in the interviews, ensure they realize they are advisory in capacity.
    Board members have the legal responsibility to select the new
    chief executive.) Have the same people as interviewers in all
    of the interviews. Consider asking some challenging, open-ended
    questions, such as Why do you want the job? What skills do you
    bring to this job? What concerns do you have about filling this
    role? What was your biggest challenge in a past job and how did
    you meet it? Do you have a preliminary vision for (the nature
    of your agency’s services)? Describe your ideal (board, fundraising
    (nonprofit only), budgeting, personnel management, program
    management) process. Don’t ask questions about race, nationality,
    age, gender, disabilities (current or previous), marital status,
    spouses, children and their care, criminal records, or credit records.
    Have all interviewers share/record their impressions of the candidate
    right after the interview meeting. Explain to the candidate that
    you’ll be getting back to them soon and always do this. Ask if
    you can get and check any references. Always check references
    and share them with the interviewers. Be sure to tell candidates
    of any relevant personnel policy terms, such as probationary
    periods. (The best way to deal with a poor performer is not to
    hire him or her in the first place. It is often wise to have a
    probationary period of, e.g., six months, wherein if the employee
    does not meet the responsibilities of the position, you can terminate
    the employee.) If practical, look into the applicant’s background
    to ascertain if they have a criminal record.
    5. Select the candidate – Usually, a board transition
    committee recommends the top two or three candidates to the entire
    board for discussion and selection. This may require another round
    of interviews, this time including more/other board members. Usually,
    this is not as easy as one would like because two or three candidates
    come in close. Have a highly focused meeting with all interviewers.
    (Again, note that staff members can provide input to the selection
    of the new chief executive, but should not be involved in voting.)
    Have each interviewer suggest their favorite candidate. If there
    is disagreement, focus the discussion to identify the one or two areas
    in which interviewers disagree about the candidates. Then have
    each interviewer explain their impressions. At this point, interviewers
    usually come to a consensus and agree on one candidate.
    6. If there does not seem to be a most suitable candidate
    – Consider if the job requirements are too stringent or are an
    odd mix. Or, consider hiring the candidate who came in closest
    and plan for dedicated training to bring their skills to the needed
    levels. Or, re-advertise the position. Consider getting advice
    from a human resources professional (at this point, your need
    for them is quite specific, so they might provide services on
    a pro bono basis). Or, consider hiring a consultant on a short-term
    basis, but only as a last resort as this may be quite expensive.

    7. If everyone turns down the job – The best strategy
    is to ask the candidates why they turned the job down. Usually,
    you’ll hear the same concerns, e.g., the pay is too low or the
    benefits incomplete, the organization seems confused about what
    it wants from the role, the interview process seemed hostile or
    contentious, etc. Reconvene the interviewers and consider what
    you heard from the candidates. Recognize what went wrong and correct
    the problem. Call back your favorite candidates, admit the mistake
    and what you did, and why you’d like to make an offer to them
    8. Offer letter – If they accept an offer, always
    follow up with an offer letter, specifying the compensation, benefits,
    and starting date, and reference an attached job description. Ask
    them to sign a copy of the offer letter and return it to you.

    9. Start a personnel file – Include in the file,
    the signed offer letter, tax withholding forms, the job description
    and any benefits forms.

    Orienting the New Chief Executive

    Develop an orientation procedure
    and consider the following activities for inclusion on the list.
    The following activities should be conducted by the board, if
    1. Before the new chief executive begins employment, send
    them a letter welcoming them to the organization,
    their starting date and providing them with a copy of the employee
    policies and procedures manual. (This can be included in the offer
    2. At this point, the board may send a letter to stakeholders.
    The letter would announce the new person when they are
    starting, something about their background, etc., and asking them
    to call the board chair if they have any questions or concerns.

    3. Meet with the chief executive to brief them on strategic
    Review the organization chart, last year’s
    final report, the strategic plan, this year’s budget, and the
    employee’s policies and procedure manual if they did not get one
    already). In the same meeting, explain the performance review
    procedure and provide them with a copy of the performance review document.

    4. When the new chief executive begins employment (or before
    if possible), introduce them in a meeting dedicated to introducing
    the new chief executive.
    If the organization is small
    enough, have all staff attend and introduce themselves. If the
    organization is larger, invite all managers to the meeting and
    have each manager introduce themselves.
    5. Ensure the new chief executive receives the necessary materials
    and is familiar with the facilities.
    Ensure an assistant
    gives them keys and gets them to sign any needed benefit and tax
    forms. Review the layout of offices, bathrooms, storage areas,
    kitchen use, copy and fax systems, computer configuration and
    procedures, telephone usage, and any special billing procedures
    for the use of office systems.
    6. Schedule any needed training, e.g., computer
    training, including the use of passwords, an overview of the software and
    documentation, location, and use of peripherals, and where to go
    to get questions answered.
    7. Review any policies and/or procedures about the use of facilities.

    8. Assign a board member to them as their “buddy”
    who remains available to answer any questions over the next four
    9. Have someone take them to lunch on their first day of
    work and invite other staff members along.

    10. During the first six weeks, have one-on-one meetings
    (face-to-face or over the telephone) with the new chief executive,

    to discuss the new employee’s transition into the organization,
    hear any pending issues or needs, and establish a working relationship
    with the new chief executive.


    Why and How to Hire an Interim CEO

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